ProjectsPast and current JFS projects


June 30, 2007


What is Most Important Environmental Priorities? Learning Lifestyle Lessons from the Edo Period

ishikawasan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Eisuke Ishikawa, Writer

If we learn the lifestyle lessons of old Edo, which was known as the "one million population city", we can identify the modern aspects of our lifestyles that need to be changed. Many educated Japanese people, the so-called intellectual group, apparently like aspects of the European and American lifestyles, and they tend to favor such Western-style lifestyle choices. But I think we should review the Edo lifestyle and the direction our society was previously moving in, before following the lead of Western culture and civilization.

Society supported by 100,000 kcal

The biggest environmental problem in modern Japan is excessive energy consumption. We use about 125,000 kcal per person per day, and 80% of that energy, equivalent to about 100,000 kcal, comes from fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas. That amount of energy (100,000 kcal) is able to heat up ton of water from 0°C to boiling. The capacity of an oil drum, or a typical Japanese bathtub, is 200 liters, and one ton of water is about five of these. The energy is also equivalent to that consumed per person on a fully-booked flight from Tokyo to Osaka.

Some may wonder how long ago energy consumption was half of what it is now, and may even think that the standard of living was much lower at that time. In around 1970, when the Osaka Expo opened, energy consumption was about 50,000 kcal per person. Although the energy consumption was 50% lower than now, it was sufficient for the standard of living at the time. One may think that little has changed since then; however, overall energy consumption has dramatically increased, due to such changes as the penetration of private cars (now 140% vs. 30% in 1970).

Recycling is now a widespread activity in Japan; however, "true" recycling is no longer carried out. For example, to recycle plastic bottles requires large amounts of energy. If we do nothing, the amount of garbage will increase and cause even more problems, but recycling with fossil fuels is not "true" recycling.

Recycling Covered by Solar Energy during Edo Period

Five million tons of rice was harvested every year in the late Edo Period, let's look at how this rice, together with the millions of tons of straw produced as a by-product, was used economically. The rice is eaten, leaving the seed husks, while some rice is stockpiled. However, the treatment of sewage was very different in the Edo Period. Due to modern technology, human waste is simply flushed away to treatment plants. In the Edo Period, however, the waste was sold as valuable fertilizer.

Human waste was not washed away; therefore, rivers were surprisingly clean at that time. If we don't make something dirty, it stays clean. Particularly in Osaka, which was known for its many bridges water was abundant, and 400,000 or 500,000 people used the city's abundant rivers as a drinking water supply at that time.

Half of the straw was used for barnyard litter, and about 30% was used after being burnt to ash. When this ash is mixed with water, the water becomes alkaline, which is useful for various tasks, for example, washing clothing or as potassium fertilizer to grow Japanese radishes. There were wholesale businesses dealing in ash in the city, and ash was sold in bulk to agricultural villages. The other 20% of the straw was used for straw products, such as straw sandals. After wearing out, they were burnt to ash. For individuals who could not collect enough ash for sale, public baths would collect it.

In this way, 10 million tons of rice and straw was used without producing any waste. This is "true" recycling. Although manpower was the seed money, grain which was harvested in the previous year supported it. Solar energy grows the grain, and this means that every resource derived from it was produced using solar energy.

Clothing, Food and Housing Need Zero kcal

Some historians have suggested that the Edo Period was awful because of famine and starvation, but this is a misinterpretation. If it was truly awful, it would not have lasted for 270 years. It is natural that serious matters, such as famine or starvation, were recorded in greater detail than everyday matters when sufficient food and clothing were available, and ordinary people seldom kept records. As there was a recycling system at the heart of society, clothing, food and housing were all produced at a cost of zero energy.

When we look our modern lives, they have become filled with many things; however, with an excess of such luxuries, many can sit idle. After all, having so many things does not mean necessarily translate to affluence. We should stop criticizing lifestyles that consume very little energy, and seriously review our own lives.

Particularly with food, since the rise of so-called Western-style food, more people living in Japanese cities are suffering from hay fever and children have developed lifestyle-related diseases. A survey of nearly all elementary and junior high school students in the Tokyo metropolitan area was conducted in 2005. The results showed that 10% had already developed a lifestyle-related disease, while more than 20% were showing early symptoms. In addition, other research has shown that 17% of elementary school students and 38% of junior high school students suffer from hay fever.

Why is this happening? Because we live the so-called "good life"; eating high-fat, high-protein and high-calorie diets as much as we want, doing little exercise and staying up late. In comparison, the Edo Period was ideal. People walked a lot because there were no cars, and they were early to bed and early to rise because the lanterns were about one-hundredth the brightness of a 60-Watt bulb, and it was too dark to do anything at night. Human bodies are meant to sleep when the sun goes down.

The body of Homo sapiens sapiens, the sole survivor of several hominid species, has not made any major progress for about 30,000 years. For our ~30,000-year-old bodies, our modern lifestyle is extremely unnatural. It would not an exaggeration to say that, to sustain this unnatural lifestyle, we consume 100,000 kcal of energy everyday.

Be Aware of your Health Instead of "Environmental Friendly"

The system of human waste that I discussed earlier did not only exist in the Edo Period. Although I was raised in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, the nearby landowner, who was a large-scale farmer, used such waste for compost until around 1950. And we received tomatoes for our family every summer.

Although past eras are associated with poor sanitation, I believe that our modern lifestyle is worse for our health. I was born in 1933, and when I attend high school class reunions, there are few people that suffer from hay fever. I believe that the generations who grew up in "dirty" environments are tougher. Perhaps they developed immunities as they grew up. I believe that our modern, ultra-clean environment is poorly suited for humans.

Having destroyed older sound lifestyles for modern lifestyles is an aspect of economic growth. However we feel about our fast, disposable society, our imitation of Western culture has led to many problems, but the modern lifestyle will be finished when the energy runs out. Between 1945 and 1948, there were no lights in the evening. The electricity for lightning whole areas of Tokyo at that time is now consumed by a single supermarket. Great amounts of electricity support our modern lifestyle.

Reductions in CO2 emissions are now being widely discussed. However, being "environmentally friendly," which passes the focus onto others, is not good enough. The most important thing is yourself. Thinking about future while reconsidering lifestyles that could damage your health is far more realistic than simply saying it is for the earth.

I believe that our modern lifestyle will have to change greatly within the next decade. However, human beings do not easily perish. If you understand the reality of our current situation, and make the best of what we have, you can probably get through these times. Using as little energy as possible before jumping at alternative energy resources is probably the best way to protect yourself.


Eisuke Ishikawa is a writer who specializes in the environmental and ecological issues in the Edo period (1603-1867). His recent books introduce wisdom of sustainable living in the Edo period from the angles of technology, energy, resource management, and recycling systems of the period.

Subscribe to JFS Newsletter

Our Supporters

1% for the Planet Banner